When the World Wide Web was envisioned by Sir Tim Berners-Lee a generation ago, the goal was a free, fair and open place for information to be exchanged. While Sir Tim probably didn’t envision Netflix in his grand scheme, his view of an internet that is free for all has triumphed all over the world, leading to the biggest change in global civilization in our lifetimes. There is no other single thing, no other concept in any living memory, that compares to the idea of being connected to every information source in the world, instantly. And while service providers (in most countries) have the right to charge for higher-speed service, the information that’s out there has all been available at the same speed.
That’s about to change, and not only should you care, you should be furious.
Yesterday, according to the New York Times, the FCC said it would propose new rules where big content providers like Netflix, Disney/ABC/ESPN, and the like could pay for super-fast access, shutting out “the little guy” and stifling the free exchange of information. The FCC had previously backed plans to keep all information flowing at the same rate, but their flawed rules were struck down. Rather than coming up with better ones, the FCC seems determined to dismantle the free and public internet as we know it.
Make no mistake, this is huge.
The FCC now says that it wants to work within the rules it’s been given by the courts and give big content providers a way to get their stuff to you. They promise it will be a “case by case” basis and that they’re committed to keeping the process fair. Don’t you believe it. There is no way this ends well and it’s the end of the kind of innovation that’s driven the internet for decades.
Other countries are completely committed to the idea that all information should flow to your home or business at the same rate and the FCC claimed that our country was too, until its rules were slapped down — not because they were unethical but they were written badly. All the FCC needs to do is reclassify broadband internet as “telecommunication” and this would all end. Here’s the dictionary definition of telecommunication:
Telecommunication is communication at a distance by technological means, particularly through electrical signals or electromagnetic waves.
Sounds like the internet to me.
On the face of it, you might not care about this new stance by the FCC. You might even think it’s great, because it means that your Netflix and Hulu will probably get faster (if a bit more expensive.) But what about the next generation of streaming services that can’t afford to pay for those fast “toll roads” on the new internet? How will they ever grow? All that’s happening here is that the power to run the internet is getting concentrated within a smaller and smaller group and sooner or later, if the FCC keeps on its current track, you’ll have one source of information: Google/Netflix/ESPN, and the idea that information is free will simply die.
When FCC chair Tom Wheeler took over in November of last year, many folks thought he would make really meaningful changes to an agency that had been long known for doing as little as possible. Unfortunately, Mr. Wheeler’s actions since taking office haven’t been popular with anyone except the big telecommunications giants that have benefited from his stance on how the business of communication should be run. For the record, Mr. Wheeler strongly disagrees with critics of his proposal, saying that those of us who think the open internet is dead are “flat out wrong.”
Maybe, Mr. Wheeler, but sometimes it’s necessary to take bold action to save the things you feel strongest about. The free and open internet is our greatest global asset and you want to give some companies preferential treatment. You want to open up a toll road that leaves the little guy stuck in traffic while the fat cats get a smooth open highway. That’s undemocratic and unfair. The ability to watch a movie from Netflix without the resolution dropping to DVD quality is not worth giving up the very thing that makes the internet special.